Yankee Stadium, Chevrolet, and Katharine Hepburn. The first two are American Institutions, bastions of Western industry and longevity. The last is one of the greatest actresses of the last century, but she is no less a symbol of American diligence and quality. Katharine Hepburn, nominated for twelve Oscars® and the winner of four, a Connecticut Yankee who conquered Hollywood then returned to her New England nest, remains one of the most admired women in the world for her talent, personality, and class.
Who else could entitle their autobiography “Me” and get away with it? Katharine Houghton Hepburn was born on November 12, 1907, in Hartford, Connecticut. Her mother came from a prominent social family and was an advocate for women’s rights; her father was a successful surgeon. Not surprisingly, young Katharine burned with the belief that she could do anything. And what she wanted to do was act. As a young girl, she organized plays among her playmates, always taking the lead.
As a student at prestigious Bryn Mawr College she met with resistance among her capable classmates. But after graduation she joined a theater company in Baltimore, vowing to become a great stage actress despite her parents’ protestations. She made her mark on stage right away. Hollywood came courting, and by 1932, one of the worst years of the Great Depression, Katharine commanded $1,500 a week as a contract player at RKO Pictures. She was arrogant and talented and by 1933 she had won her first Oscar® for Morning Glory. It was an auspicious start. She followed up with another great performance in Little Women (1933), working with the great director, George Cukor, who would direct her in the classic Holiday (1938) and The Philadelphia Story (1940), based on a play she had commissioned and starred in on Broadway. Katharine appeared with Cary Grant in these last two, as well as in Bringing Up Baby (1938), considered one of the greatest screwball comedies of all time.
After being passed over for the role of Scarlett O’Hara for “not being sexy enough,” Katharine began the great romance of her life – onscreen and off – with Spencer Tracy. A Catholic, Tracy would not get a divorce from his wife, but he and Katharine began a long personal and professional collaboration starting with Woman of the Year (1942) and continuing through Keeper of the Flame (1943), Adam’s Rib (1949), Pat and Mike (1952), and Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner (1967), the last netting Katharine another Oscar®. She won a third Oscar® the next year for The Lion in Winter (1968), then slid into a period of lesser roles. The seventies saw her acting mostly in television, most notably with Laurence Olivier in Love Among the Ruins (1975). She won a fourth Oscar® opposite Henry Fonda in On Golden Pond (1981), all while battling a variety of illnesses.
Katharine Hepburn passed away at her home in Old Saybrook, Connecticut, on June 29, 2003. An enduring star and role model for generations of women, she will live on as the benchmark by which future stars are judged.